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Cindy Montañez, Barrier-busting San Fernando Lawmaker and Environmental Crusader, Dies

The cause of death was not provided, but Montañez was recently diagnosed with aggressive terminal cancer.

Cindy Montañez, the trailblazing San Fernando leader and environmental advocate who had a local elementary school named in her honor Tuesday, died Saturday, Oct. 21, city officials announced.

“It is with inconsolable grief and deep sadness that we announce the passing of Councilmember Cindy Montañez, current CEO of TreePeople, and former California State Assembly Member,” San Fernando officials wrote.

” … Cindy will be remembered as a fierce advocate and a champion for environmental justice across California. To her family Cindy will always remain a loving daughter, sister, aunt and great aunt, and will be missed dearly.

“The family requests that their privacy be respected during this difficult time. Details regarding the memorial service and funeral will be shared as they are made available,” the statement continued.

The cause of death was not provided, but Montañez, 49, was recently diagnosed with aggressive terminal cancer.

Montañez, a longtime advocate and public servant who grew up in San Fernando, had been CEO of TreePeople since 2016, a 50-year-old volunteer-based organization that focuses on re-greening communities with plants and trees, harvesting the rain and renewing depleted landscapes.

Montañez was the youngest person ever elected to the San Fernando City Council in 1999 at age 25. She continued shattering records when, in 2002, at age 28, she became the youngest woman ever elected to the state Legislature.

Two years later, at 30, Montañez was tapped to chair the powerful Assembly Rules Committee, becoming once again the youngest person, first Latina and first Democratic woman to hold that position.

Earlier this year, that achievement was detailed in a resolution introduced to the Legislature by state Assemblymember Luz Rivas which declared Jan. 19 – Montañez’s birthday – as Cindy Montañez Day.

She pursued change in every role she took on — during her time on the San Fernando City Council, as a member of the state Assembly, as an employee for the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power where she rose to assistant general manager, and in her role as CEO of  TreePeople.

A San Fernando Valley native, Montañez was the fourth of six children born to Manuel and Margarita Montanez, according to an obituary released by TreePeople.  Cindy attended Morningside Elementary and First Lutheran School in San Fernando. She attended high school at Ramona Convent Secondary School. As a youth, she was a competitive swimmer and a member of the Glendale YMCA Swim Team.

Montañez’s advocacy and leadership dated to her days at UCLA, where, as a freshman, she joined a 14-day hunger strike to demand the university start a Chicano studies department, paving the way for the César E. Chávez Department of Chicana/o and Central American Studies.

“I’m deeply saddened by the passing of Assemblywoman Montañez. The Assemblywoman was a relentless trailblazer who led with conviction and a vision of a better Los Angeles for all,” Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass said in a statement Saturday afternoon.

“I saw her tenacity up close many times. She was by my side when we fought together in Sacramento, making difficult decisions to help our state and she advised me when I served in Congress on a range of issues impacting our city. Throughout it all, one thing was always clear — Assemblywoman Montañez’s heart and soul were always dedicated to the people of Los Angeles,” Bass continued.

“It was an honor just last month to recognize her with members of the City Council. I join so many Angelenos in holding memories of the Assemblywoman close. My thoughts are with her friends and family as we mourn the loss of a great Angeleno.”

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Unified School Board voted unanimously to rename Gridley Street Elementary School in San Fernando to Gridley-Montañez Dual Language Academy.

“I think it’s incredibly inspiring both that the school community came together around this potential change, and wanted to retain its connection to Gridley,” LAUSD board member Kelly Gonez told the Daily News last week. “And the students spoke to seeing themselves in Cindy’s story, and were inspired by all of the amazing achievements that she had in her young life.”

“As a longtime advocate and public servant in the Los Angeles community, it is fitting and right that Gridley Elementary School will be renamed in honor of Cindy Montañez,” said Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho in a statement last week. “We hope her legacy of community service is instilled in every student, family, employee and community member who walks through the doors of this amazing school.”

On Sept. 9, more than 100 people attended the renaming of the Pacoima Wash Natural Park, a 4.7-acre park at 801 8th St. in San Fernando, to the Cindy Montañez Natural Park. More than 60 milkweed plants — the only plant that endangered Monarch butterflies will land upon to lay their eggs — were planted there.

A special spot with a bench and milkweed plants to attract Monarch butterflies that Montañez loved overlooking the San Fernando Valley and was dedicated to Montañez by TreePeople.

Montañez advocated for the remake of the San Fernando park, which now features walking trails, a picnic area and a stormwater capture system.

During a recent interview, Montañez said she loved Monarch butterflies because they migrate between the United States and Mexico and are bicultural.

Those familiar with Montañez’s work credit her for expanding TreePeople, both in its mission and reach.

Since 2016 when she took the helm of the nonprofit, TreePeople saw its revenues increase nearly threefold, from $4.5 million to about $13 million, and expanded its community tree-planting program to more than 15 regions, including the Inland Empire and South L.A., according to Alex Miller, a spokesperson for the organization earlier this year.

TreePeople expanded its mountain forestry restoration efforts by thousands of acres, expanded efforts to “green schools” by replacing asphalt with more gardens and green spaces, and recently launched an outdoor equity initiative to provide opportunities for youth and families to connect with nature during field trips.

In addition, under Montañez’s leadership, the organization took over direction of Mountains Restoration Trust, since renamed TreePeople Land Trust, to protect more than 3,000 acres of land in the Santa Monica Mountains from development.

The L.A. County Democratic Party released a statement mourning Montañez, calling her a “trailblazer” who “shattered multiple glass ceilings.”

“Her enduring legacy of advocating for environmental justice, climate change and housing will resonate for generations to come,” the statement said. “Our hearts go out to her family, and may her influence persist with strength and purpose.”

Montañez also served as assistant general manager for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. She resigned from that position in July 2014 to run for a seat on the L.A. City Council, but lost to Nury Martinez.

Adán Ortega Jr., chair of the board of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, said Montañez “lived up to her name as a person who climbed mountains and helped others to as well. In our last conversation at her bedside, we talked about her love for nature and hiking, as well about tackling trails of public policy.

“In 2022 … we faced dire drought conditions, while supporting turf replacement incentives to conserve water. Cindy as a Councilmember in San Fernando, spoke up for the trees,” Ortega continued in a statement issued Saturday afternoon. “Since then, we at Metropolitan have been in the process of rolling out a program to protect the tree canopy to prevent heat island effects, as we conserve water by eliminating turf. Watching Cindy never giving up, accepting richly deserved accolades, but also literally issuing assignments to those of us she saw in the last year, we will continue to climb mountains because by the very nature of her actions to propel us, we can never forget her.

“On behalf of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, we are deeply grateful for Cindy Montañez’s contributions and will carry her legacy forward. She will be remembered, and her work will continue to guide inspire us all.”

Earlier this year, Montañez said she hoped all levels of government will put more focus on addressing climate change. Although the widespread focus on homelessness and affordable housing is important, the intense focus can come at the expense of addressing pressing environmental concerns, she said.

“We focus too much on one thing” at a time, she said. “We need to include climate change.” “I hope that somebody emerges as the champion for environmental justice,” she said. The fight for justice should never end, she said later during the interview.

“Did I do enough?” she asked. “No. But I did everything I could while I was able to.”

Source: LA Daily News